Diagnosis of Early Alzheimer's Forces Chief Judge to Retire

By Josh White and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 10, 2009

The Republican chief judge of the Richmond-based federal appeals court has retired suddenly because of illness, giving President Obama another opening to fill on what was once considered the nation's most conservative appellate court.

Karen Williams of South Carolina, the first female chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, stepped down this week shortly after learning that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, according to her family. Alzheimer's, for which there is no cure, can cause mental deterioration and memory loss. Williams is 57 years old.

The 4th Circuit, an influential voice on national security issues, hears cases from Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the Carolinas. Earlier vacancies have whittled away its strong Republican majority, and the court now has five judges appointed by Republican presidents and five appointed by Democrats. Williams's departure creates a fifth vacancy, so the court could gain a 10 to 5 Democratic majority during Obama's term.

Patricia Connor, clerk of the court, said Williams's unexpected retirement became effective immediately, with William B. Traxler Jr. taking over as chief judge yesterday. Traxler, also of South Carolina, was nominated to U.S. District Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. In 1998, President Bill Clinton nominated him to the 4th Circuit.

Chief judges are chosen without regard to political affiliation, following federal laws that elevate the most senior judge under the age of 64 with at least one year of experience on the court.

Williams, whose retirement comes just two years after she took over as chief judge, had been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee during the George W. Bush administration.

Williams's eldest daughter, Marian Scalise, 39, said yesterday that her mother made a wrenching decision to leave a job she loves but did so promptly after her diagnosis to make sure she retired before any of her opinions could be questioned.

"The court has always been in her life. She has always loved the court, and serving the citizens, and making sure her opinions were correct as far as the law is concerned," Scalise said. "It's so difficult for her to step away from that."

Williams wrote a letter to the White House on Wednesday announcing her retirement, and White House officials accepted her decision to retire, said Ben LaBolte, a White House spokesman. The White House would not release the letter.

So far, Obama has nominated one judge to fill a 4th Circuit vacancy, U.S. District Judge Andre Davis of Maryland. Davis received bipartisan support from the Senate Judiciary Committee, winning approval 16 to 3 last month, and he is awaiting full Senate confirmation. Obama now can nominate four others, an opportunity to shift the court overwhelmingly.

In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 4th Circuit was the Bush administration's court of choice on national security. The court issued key rulings that backed the government on the detention of enemy combatants and the prosecution of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. The court's conservative majority has included some of the nation's most prominent judges, including J. Michael Luttig and J. Harvie Wilkinson III.

Williams, who is married and has four children and four grandchildren, learned of her disease during a routine medical examination, a diagnosis that has been difficult for her family, Scalise said. She said Williams plans to travel and spend time with her relatives after a lifetime of passionate dedication to her work.

As a judge, Scalise said, Williams wants to be remembered for "treating the litigants fairly and always applying the law."

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